Your Car Was Born in the Seventies

Your car was born in the 1970s. Car-nerds will argue about this, but the seventies mark the start of the modern era for the motor car. The economic and energy crises of the decade shook the car-world hard. It had to radically remake itself, and wound up looking nothing like it did before, and a lot like it does now.

These are the years that saw the decline of the US and British car industries and the ascent of the Japanese. Cars got safer, smaller and more efficient. We started driving hatchbacks and the MPV was invented. In fact, for an industry that often didn’t know where its next meal was coming from, a lot got done. So unless your car predates 1970, it owes a lot to the 1970s.

It all started so well. In 1970 Steve McQueen made Le Mans, and at the wheel of a Porsche 911 and 917 made driving cooler than it ever had been. But it all went wrong almost immediately with the US Clean Air Act of 1970. If you’re under 50, you’re one of the children whose health and future the Act was designed to protect, and of course we’re very grateful. But we can’t help but mourn the US muscle car, which was at its maddest in 1970 with the monstrous, bewinged Plymouth Superbird. But because of the Act, the muscle car was stone dead in just a year in the most extraordinary, instant mass-extinction event in automotive history.

The oil crisis of ’73 and the recession that followed nearly did for the supercar industry too. Some of the most famous names changed hands more often than an old fiver and bounced in and out of bankruptcy; car magazines regularly arrived at the factories of Italy’s Supercar Valley to test a new model only to find the gates locked shut, or the paint still drying on the car they were meant to be driving. But Lamborghini somehow still managed to make the Countach. It was the definitive seventies supercar; shocking and angular to look at and terrifying to drive. First shown in 1971, it took three years to get the cash together to get it into production.

The British car industry pretty much did die in the seventies; from making 1.9 million cars in 1972 it slumped to half that number by the end of the decade, and soon not a single British-owned volume carmaker was left. But the oil crisis wasn’t to blame; just look at the cars the British carmakers were insulting us with. The Austin Allegro, launched in 1973, had all the dynamism and sex appeal of your elderly Auntie Flo in her mauve Sunday best. By comparison with VW’s Golf, launched just a year later with Giugiaro’s hallmark seventies ‘folded-paper’ styling - and a practical hatchback – the Allegro looks dumpy and retarded. No wonder buyers – Brits included – deserted the British carmakers.

Others were showing the old powers how it ought to be done. Honda’s super-clean, super-frugal CVCC-powered cars led the Japanese assault on the US. American buyers, once chauvinistic but now desperate for reliable, economical cars loved them, and the US car industry has never really recovered. Volvo’s VESC experimental safety vehicle not only presaged how Volvos would look for the next 20 years but had two decades’ worth of safety advances aboard too; some of which we now take for granted (crumple zones, airbags) and some, like reversing cameras, that are still reserved for high-end cars.

But Giugiaro’s Megagamma concept was arguably the most significant of the seventies, though its impact wouldn’t be felt until much later. It started life as a sketch for a competition run by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in ’76 to design a new checker cab for the city. To cut congestion but create more cabin space Guigiaro decided to build upwards, and the people carrier was born.

If you want to see how the car moved on the ‘70s, look at the performance cars that bookmark the decade. At one end, that crude Plymouth Superbird. At the other, the Audi Quattro; turbocharged, four-wheel drive and beautifully made. And frankly, not all that different to the 270bhp, turbocharged, four-wheel drive and beautifully made Volkswagen Golf R that’s sitting on my drive as I write this. The logbook for my car says 2010, but I know it was born in the seventies.

Thirty Reasons…

Stars of the Seventies

1970 Plymouth Superbird

A few more muscle cars trickled out in ’71, but the Superbird’s massive rear wing marks the literal high-point of muscle car design, and also its swan-song.

1971 Lamborghini Countach concept

Why are all the best supercars – McLaren F1, Bugatti EB110 – launched into the teeth of recessions? Fortunately, the Countach’s incandescent styling meant it lasted into the nineties.

1972 Volvo VESC

This ESV embarrassed some of the bigger players who had taken a distinctly lax approach to their buyers’ health. Volvos have sold on safety ever since.

1973 Austin Allegro

Just bloody awful: epitomized everything that was wrong with the British car industry. Some say there’s no such thing as a bad car now, but there was back then.

1974 Volkswagen Golf

There had been hatchbacks before, but none looked as good, or mixed premium feel with affordable price like the Golf. Set the template that family cars still follow.

1975 Porsche 911 Turbo

‘911’ and ‘Turbo’ put together have always seemed slightly tautological, and were certainly terrifying in these early cars. But 35 years on they’re still being made.

1976 Aston Martin Lagonda

William Town’s insane styling is one of the stand-out designs of the decade. Digital dash and computer-controlled everything meant they broke down as much as they stood out.

1978 Lancia Megagamma

At the Turin motor show Giugiaro unveiled a concept that would spawn not just a new car, but a whole new type of car.

1980 Audi Quattro

It might have been launched in 1980 but the Audi Quattro  –  full of brawn but laced with new tech – was the ultimate expression of seventies automotive ethos. A truly modern performance car; still sensational to drive, and still inspiring current fast cars.

Influx people: Seventies Stylists

Chris Ryan
Chris Ryan is Cornish based surfer, musician and collector of offbeat vehicles. His Beach Buggy is a creation from the early 70s - with fibreglass frame strapped onto a ’61 beetle chassis. The motor is your standard 1500 VW job. "I bought the buggy from a friend who used it on a farm about 10 years ago with a view to restoring it,", he tells me. " The project hasn't really taken off yet," he says, "But I like it because it isn’t a shiny gadget: it’s a bit nasty."

Neville King
Chef and co-proprietor of the Old Station Inn in Hallatrow, Somerset, Neville bought his Corvette 13 years ago whilst he was living in the US to keep in the UK as a runaround. The plan had been to buy a British classic motor car, but this was a little piece of the American dream he wanted to keep close.
"She has dangerous curves - great going in a straight line, but gets interesting in the wet. She's still a very comfortable drive, if a little noisy. Last weekend she was driven up to Newcastle and back without a problem."

Elsie Pinniger
Pro surfer and seamstress Elsie Pinniger bought ‘Mo’ the 1976 Morris Marina in Harvest Gold, 18 months ago. Though Marinas haven't had the best press of late, Elsie is in love.
"It’s so easy to fix! All you need is the manual. I always surprise the AA men by knowing what to do with Mo in a crisis. Mo's also long enough to keep the longboard in. Huge priority.

Pops Yoshimura and the Birth of Muscle

Look, I’m a stick in the mud. Not only that, I’m inconsistent. On one hand, bullets of nervous sweat pop up on my forehead the minute my home Wi-Fi hiccups, on the other I dream of all electronics, rider aids and sophistication being removed from motorcycle racing.

Why? They’ve ruined it. Sure, the best guys still win, but electronics, even the most basic examples, have helped homogenise racing. Now there is barely any variety.

Look at any class and there is a right way and wrong way to do it. Technology has removed the grey areas. No one needs to go with their ‘gut feeling’. And even fewer take risks when it comes to development. In public, at least.

The scientific approach - testing everything behind closed doors, on wind tunnels and with telemetry, has taken romance, repeatedly slammed its head in the garage door and buried it behind the Research and Development department.

Now there is just one approach, one line, one tyre. To spot the differences you need a microscope. And I’m not just talking about the machinery. It’s the riders’ approach too. There are nutritionists, personal trainers – three hours consulting the data while sucking on a bucketful of isotonic slurry. There are teams that even use satellite tracking to determine the optimum apex of any given bend. That’s three satellites to work out the best way around a corner!

To find my race paddock nirvana you need to return to America in the late seventies. For a good example set the time machine specifically for October 1977 at Riverside International Raceway, California. Look for two dudes in Nippondenso leathers hanging around with a crew of oily Japanese fellas.

Steve McLaughlin is one of the racers. Wes Cooley is the other. The leader of the engineers is Pops Yoshimura. A former boy pilot in the Japanese Navy, Pops was fortunate not to become part of the ‘Divine Wind’ ordered to take a one-way flight into an American aircraft carrier during World War II. Lovers of fast Suzukis the world over should be glad he somehow side-stepped the dubious honour of becoming a kamikaze pilot.

Bike-mad and with an understanding of how engines worked and what to do to improve them, Yoshimura arrived in America in the late-1970s and put the cat among the pigeons in AMA Production Superbike racing. And it is those Production Superbikes I love.

Yoshimura worked on both Kawasaki Z1s and Suzuki GS750s and 1000s. Back in 1977 and 1978 the US Superbike road racing scene was on the cusp of hitting the big time. Yoshimura has been described as the founding father of Superbike racing.

‘Back then the superbikes had high handlebars, twin shocks and conduit for a frame,’ remembers Eddie Lawson, ‘But they had a lot of horsepower.’ Science hadn’t caught up with tuning. In fact, science hadn’t even been given a pit pass. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that it would start to make a big impact. Back in the 1970s the cutting edge of pit-lane tech was a new digital stopwatch on a string around your mechanic’s sunburnt neck. The bikes were as dumb as dinosaur droppings.

So while Pops Yoshimura could coerce obscene gobs of power out of an eight-valve, four-cylinder Kawasaki, the bits of the bike he wrapped around the hulking power plant couldn’t handle it.

‘The tyres?’ says Wes Cooley and starts to laugh. ‘Ha, they were really different. Nothing like they’ve got now, that’s for sure. When I started riding the Kawasaki 900 it handled better with street tyres than with slicks. It would hook up too good with the slicks, which would make the frame torque [flex]. I could get away with running road Dunlops and make it slide a lot better. With slicks it would just wobble all over the place. And the brakes? I could put my feet down and probably slow down better.’

What kind of power was Cooley and his competition dealing with? Probably 100-110bhp in 1977 and going on for 130 a few years later (or the same power as 2002 Fireblade).

Lawson really came to the fore in the Superbike class in 1980-81 (before launching into Grands Prix and winning the 500cc title twice), but he first tested Kawasaki’s 1000 in 1979.

‘You look back on it now and you wouldn’t even ride it. At the time you just thought “All right, it’s not actually gonna spit me off, I don’t think. So hold it wide open.” It was pretty crazy. If you could ride that you could ride anything.’

Every top-level bike racer from any era has his own problems to deal with, and it’s indisputable that racing is much closer now that it was then, but I still yearn to see the best of their day bucking and weaving on a glorified, petrified muscle bike. Forget electronic damping and anti-wheelie, in 1977 adjustable suspension was still around the corner.

Wes Cooley knows where I’m coming from. We spoke about those days, when he was one of the most famous racers in America (now he’s an orthopaedic nurse). ‘I think the period is so fondly remembered because it was the beginning of the superbikes… Because it wasn’t all computer-controlled, riders had to ride the bikes differently. It was real life, down to the nitty-gritty, salt-and-rock, blood, sweat and tears. They were rough-looking motorcycles: the high handlebars, the 19-inch wheels and the four exhaust pipes. They weren’t sleek and modern.’

And it is those motorcycles from that raced on circuits across America and beyond, from 1977 to 1981 that still define the term ‘muscle bike’ – they were strong in the arm, thick in the head. They didn’t have electronic brains. They didn’t even have clockwork brains. They were about speed and power, not precision or efficiency. They were of their time. Of course, they were as doomed as they were dim-witted. Progress would see to that, but look at a period photo, of one of the brave riders hanging off, gaffa tape prototype kneesliders licking tracks called Loudon, Daytona and Sears Point or tucking behind number boards to escape the 160mph windblast and try to argue that there are many more evocative sights in bike racing. I dare you. I double-dare you!

All Hail The Wedge

If any single design concept is synonymous with the 1970s it must be The Wedge. Redolent of an imagined space-age future, the design was conceived at the end of the 1960s by epoch making designers like Giugiaro and Gandini. It wasn't until the decade that moon shots came and went, however, that they saw the light of day, wrought in steel. Here are six of our favourite wedges.

The Dome Zero

Japanese company Dome released the Zero concept at the Geneva Motor Show in 1978, It was supposed to be a demonstration of homologation special for a new line of sports cars. However, it failed to pass homologation regulations in Japan. In 1979 the company debuted a revised version of the car that came with U.S standard safety equipment. In the same year, a racing effort was launched at Le Mans but the ‘Zero RL' failed to finish the race. Not the most successful wedge design, but it looked great anyhow.

The Lancia Stratos Zero

The Lancia Stratos Zero was a Bertone design exercise that was showcased at the Geneva show of 1970. The Zero was just 883mm high so drivers would have to lift the windscreen to mount the car. The Stratos HF production car was based on the concept – albeit very loosely.

The Maserati Boomerang

The Maserati Boomerang concept was presented at the 1972 Geneva Motor Show – sitting next to Giugiaro’s other famous wedge of that year, the Lotus Esprit M70. Its windscreen had an extreme 15 degree windshield rake. Giugiaro’s company ItalDesign apparently used the Boomerang as inspiration when designing the Delorean. In 2005 the original Boomerang concept was sold to a collector at a Christies’s auction for $1,000,000.

Pininfarina-Ferrari Modulo

Paulo Martin designed the rare and famous Pininfarina-Ferrari Modulo concept- and gained 22 design awards along the way. The extreme design was developed using the Ferrari 512-S racer, and was primarly a showcase for cutting edge build techniques – and of course to flex the flair and passion of Pininfarina to maximum degree.

Countach Concept

The original Countach concept was an unadulterated, groundbreaking production design drawn by Gandini for Bertone in 1971. Its striking scissor doors were pilfered from the Alfa Carabo of 1968 – but were actually a practical requirement because of the extreme width of the car. The pure design of the concept was translated loosely into the production first LP400. Soon however, splitters, wings and other safety equipment were added to the mix – watering down this most pure of seventies wedges.